There's a popular belief in NBA circles that the third year is when a player makes the transition to stardom, if he's going to make it. Among point guards, that worked for Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and much has been said about Aaron Brooks making a similar - though smaller - leap. Through five games, Brooks seems on the right track, averaging 20 points and eight assists while directing the Rockets to a surprising 3-2 record.
But slightly under the radar is Carl Landry, the other overachiever from the Rockets' 2007 draft class. Can he, much like forward Jeff Green in Oklahoma City, also make the third-year jump?
If Wednesday's matchup with the Lakers was any indication, it's possible - especially on offense. Landry's 20 points and eight rebounds were crucial as the undersized Rockets again held their own with the star-studded Lakers at Toyota Center, losing a 103-102 overtime heartbreaker in Ron Artest's Houston return. The Rockets led throughout, but as usual, three close calls down the stretch all went the direction of Kobe Bryant's team.
But individual wins or losses don't define an 82-game season, particularly for a young team like the Rockets. It's about development and the ability to put their best team forward by April, and the Rockets learned a lot about Landry in their battle with the defending champions.
When Luis Scola fouled out (for breathing on Kobe) with 1:30 left, the Rockets found themselves down two. They inserted Landry, and fresh off the bench, he backed the taller Lamar Odom down in the post, elevated and calmly drilled a jump hook to tie it.
"Once [Landry] gets the ball deep, he's a handful down there," forward Shane Battier said. "Carl's as good of a low post scorer as there is around. You throw the ball to him, he's so explosive. Nine-of-12 from the field speaks volumes."
The Lakers regained a one-point lead with 25 seconds left, and Phil Jackson followed by paying Landry the ultimate respect - by using his premier defender, Artest, to front and deny him the ball, while also rotating Andrew Bynum from behind to prevent the lob pass. Quite simply, the Lakers feared Landry and refused to let him beat them.
"I looked over at coaching staff for the Lakers and they knew what we were running," Landry said. "They even had a guy coming behind me too. But at the same time, we're young and we've got to learn how to finish games."
That didn't happen against LA. Brooks was somehow denied free throws when Odom yanked him out of the air, and former Laker Trevor Ariza was hacked and lost the ball in the final seconds. Head coach Rick Adelman was so infuriated he refused to discuss the plays, while general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his officiating frustrations.
But officiating aside, the 20 points on 75 percent shooting was another positive step for the Rockets' emerging post presence. Landry's first two seasons were a pleasant surprise as he earned the reputation as the team's best finisher near the basket, routinely throwing down dunks after Brooks or another guard collapsed the defense.
This year, the Rockets are banking on Landry to be more than merely a finisher who relies on others to create. With Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady out, the Rockets need players to generate their own offense.
"It's something I work on every day in practice," said Landry, who spent time this summer refining his hook and adding an up-and-under move to his post arsenal. "Without Yao being here, we need a low-post presence. The coaching staff and people in front office came to me and said they needed me to score down low, and that's what I'm trying to do when I get the opportunity."
Adelman recently called him the team's best post-up player, high praise for a team that also has Scola on its roster. Morey has largely echoed that assessment, directing Landry to be more aggressive on the block.
For the season thus far, results have been mixed. He's upped his averages from nine points and five rebounds in 21 minutes to 13 and six in 24, but moments of brilliance, like Wednesday, have been countered by 2-for-7 and 3-of-12 nights. While his rebounding is solid, his 1-on-1 defense remains below par, as evidenced when even the slow-footed Artest blew by him twice.
But when the stakes were high, he earned the respect of a go-to offensive option - a potentially crucial role for a team short in that area, and quite a climb from his days as an unknown second-round pick from Purdue.
While he quietly acknowledges that development, he also credits it to the presence of Chuck Hayes, whose 14 points, 14 rebounds and physical play were paramount in keeping the Rockets alive against the taller Lakers.
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"That's the best defender in the league," Landry said. "It helps a lot, to go up against him in practice. When I get guys on me bigger, smaller, it doesn't matter - my eyes light up just because they're not Chuck."
Offensive execution isn't enough by itself. The Rockets' calling card remains defense, and that's the reason it took Scola fouling out for Landry to re-enter Wednesday's game. But passable defense is usually an easier trait to develop than becoming a go-to post scorer - a skill most fans assumed would be absent from the team when Yao went down.
It's become yet another area where the Rockets are determined to silence their critics.
"He's going to be great," Hayes said. "One of our best."